Profile: Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

  • 30 December 2014
  • From the section Europe
Alexei Navalny after release from jail in July 2013 Image copyright AP
Image caption Alexei Navalny has quickly built up a reputation for being Vladimir Putin's most vociferous critic

Anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, 38, has become the most prominent face of Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin.

He has already spent a short time in jail for alleged embezzlement. Now a judge in Moscow has given him a suspended sentence in a separate fraud case in which his brother has been imprisoned for three and a half years.

Navalny has long been a thorn in President Putin's side, and he has consistently argued that his legal troubles are Kremlin reprisals for spearheading protests.

When he described the president's United Russia as "the party of crooks and thieves" the phrase stuck and he became the unofficial leader of a protest movement during parliamentary elections in 2011 and then the presidential vote in 2012.

When he was jailed in July 2013 for embezzlement in the city of Kirov, the five-year sentence was widely seen as political.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Despite no coverage of his campaign on state TV, Navalny attracted large crowds during his mayoral campaign

But he was unexpectedly allowed out of prison to campaign for the Moscow mayoral elections, in which he was runner-up with 27% of the vote, behind Putin-ally Sergei Sobyanin.

That was considered a dramatic success as he had no access to state TV, relying only on the internet and word of mouth.

Despite being placed under house arrest months later, he has continued to speak out against the Kremlin, largely through social media, including his blog.

When supporters set up a Facebook page calling for protests to mark the latest Navalny trial verdict, thousands signed up and the page was taken down. A new page surfaced, attracting thousands more.

Although Navalny never had the public profile of former jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, parallels between the two figures have been drawn.

Khodorkovsky spent a decade in Russian jails, and when in 2010 a court convicted him for a second time, the lengthy prison sentence was announced on 30 December, when most Russians were focused on the new year holiday.

Alexei Navalny's second court verdict had been due on 15 January 2015, but inexplicably the court brought the date forward, again to 30 December.

Unlike Khodorkovsky, now based in Switzerland, Navalny has vowed to fight on in Russia.

Image copyright AP

Alexei Navalny - the basics

  • Born 4 June 1976 at Butyn, in the Moscow region
  • Graduated in law at Moscow's Friendship of the Peoples University in 1998
  • Became a Yale World Fellow in 2010
  • Lives in Moscow with his wife and two children

'Dirty money'

Navalny's rise as a force in Russian politics began in 2008 when he started blogging about alleged malpractice and corruption at some of Russia's big state-controlled corporations.

One of his tactics was to become a minority shareholder in major oil companies, banks and ministries, and to ask awkward questions about holes in state finances.

Speaking to BBC News, he suggested the best thing Western states could do for justice in Russia was to crack down on "dirty money".

Image copyright AP
Image caption When prosecutors demanded jail for his brother, Navalny said they were trying to take hostages

"I want people involved in corruption and persecution of activists to be barred from entering these countries, to be denied visas," he said.

'Crooks and thieves'

The campaign against corruption took Navalny from criticism of corporations directly to opposition to the ruling party, United Russia.

Ahead of the 2011 parliamentary election, which he did not fight as a candidate, he urged his blog readers to vote for any party except United Russia, which he dubbed the "party of crooks and thieves".

United Russia won the election, but with a much-reduced majority, and its victory was tarnished by widespread allegations of vote-rigging that prompted protests in Moscow and some other major cities.

Mr Navalny was arrested and imprisoned for 15 days following the first protest on 5 December, but emerged to speak at the biggest of the post-election rallies in Moscow on 24 December, attended by as many as 120,000 people.

Mr Putin later won re-election as president easily and Russia's powerful Investigative Committee launched criminal investigations into Mr Navalny's past activities, even questioning his credentials as a lawyer.

'Sucking the blood out of Russia'

Alexei Navalny says the Kremlin and its allies have used trumped-up charges against him. When he was jailed in 2013 he told the judge that he would fight on with his colleagues "to destroy the feudal state that's being built in Russia, destroy the system of government where 83% of national wealth is owned by a half per cent of the population''.

President Putin's system was "sucking the blood out of Russia", he said.

He tweeted to his supporters: "Don't sit around doing nothing. The toad won't get off the oil pipe by itself." The "toad" was what he called the Russian government in a post on his LiveJournal blog.

That reaction and his use of Twitter to deliver it symbolise his political style - reaching out to predominantly young followers on social media in sharp, punchy language, mocking the establishment loyal to President Putin.

Mr Navalny has had critics in the anti-Putin camp, not least for what some see as his flirtation with Russian nationalism.

He spoke at ultra-nationalist events, causing concern among liberals.

Russian nationalists, too, were wary of his links with the US, after he spent a semester at Yale in 2010.

But when the opposition elected its own leaders in October 2012, it was Alexei Navalny who won, ahead of veteran Putin critic and former chess champion Garry Kasparov, although it was on a small turnout of 81,801.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Navalny's first major trial involved 12-hour train rides to and from the court in Kirov

The opposition has been weakened by Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Opinion polls suggest strong support for the intervention among Russians. The Kremlin denies fomenting the Ukraine conflict.

In March, Alexei Navalny called on the US and EU to target the Kremlin elite with sanctions, specifically Putin allies Gennady Timchenko, Arkady and Boris Rotenberg and Igor Sechin.

While those figures have been targeted, others such as oligarch Roman Abramovich have not.

The question that has regularly been posed about Navalny is whether he commands any support beyond the population centres of Moscow and other cities.

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